Vietnam’s coal-powered future could be dangerous

Rain coming down in the late afternoon in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (AFP/YE AUNG THU)

With an economy that’s rapidly growing, Vietnam is facing an increase in energy demand. According to Vietnamese power company, Electricity of Vietnam, energy demand in the country is forecasted to grow 10% annually. Vietnam has already made moves to meet the growing demand for energy in the country, namely by utilizing coal power.

Accounting for a significant chunk of the demand for energy is the demand for electricity. The Vietnam Energy Outlook Report 2017 released by the Vietnamese government in collaboration with Danish Energy Agency, states that electricity demand is expected to grow 8% annually until 2035.

Vietnam is looking to coal to power its growing energy demands. Currently, the use of coal in the region is already quite substantial. According to the same energy outlook report, from 2000 to 2015, the biomass and hydro share of the total primary energy supply has dropped to 24% from 53% while coal share grew from 14% to 35% of the total supply.

As more and more countries are starting to ditch coal and move to greener or less-damaging resources such as natural gas or renewables such as solar power and wind, Vietnam is planning to increase its coal use in the coming years.

VietNamNet reported in January 2018 that the government’s power development plan will see the rise of coal-fired power to 49% of Vietnam’s total energy mix by 2020 and 55% by 2025. According to a Vietnam Economic Times article from November 2017, Vietnam plans to increase the number of coal-fired plants to 32 by 2020 and 51 by 2030. If all goes to plan, the 32 coal-fired plants in 2020 will be burning 63 million tons of coal per year. 129 million tons of coal per year will be burning by the time all 51 are open.

The attractiveness of coal to Vietnam is probably due to its affordability. However, Vietnam has been facing a backlash for their plans to increase the use of coal in the country. In the summer of 2016, The Guardian reported that World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim rebuked Vietnam for their coal plans. “If Vietnam goes forward with 40GW of coal, if the entire region implements their coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished,” said Jim Yong Kim.

Most, if not all the concerns surrounding Vietnam’s increased dependence on coal are environmental in nature. A study by Harvard University and Greenpeace released in 2015 revealed that existing coal plants at the time had caused an estimated 4,300 premature deaths every year, while the number could rise up to 25,000 premature deaths per year. According to Greenpeace, this can be avoided by switching to renewable energy.

According to the Vietnam Energy Outlook Report 2017, Vietnam has developed a renewable energy development strategy to integrate more renewable energy into its plans. VietNamNet reported that the Prime Minister has approved to develop wind power in the country. The government hopes that wind power would contribute 5% to the total electricity output by 2050.

However, aside from that, concrete steps to increase the use of renewable energy still remain to be seen. As long as coal is cheaper compared to other sources of energy, it will remain the number one choice. Also, it doesn’t help that foreign investors are making huge investments into the coal sector. Vietnamese Investment Review reported in December 2017, that total foreign investment into coal projects in Vietnam was around US$20.5 billion.

If Vietnam is serious in their pledge to reduce carbon emissions to 8% by 2030, Vietnam needs to rethink their coal plans for the future. The country needs to realise that it already has great potential for renewable energy. A 2017 report by WWF Vietnam and Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance revealed that 100% of Vietnam’s power could be generated by renewable energy by 2050. With a growing economy, Vietnam has to invest in sustainability. The country can lead the way in showing that economic growth and sustainability can go hand in hand.

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